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Overview of Research and Findings in Spirituality & Heath. Harold G. Koenig, MD Departments of Medicine and Psychiatry Duke University Medical Center GRECC VA Medical Center. Overview. What is health? What is spirituality? What is religion? Research on religion and mental health

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Overview of Research and Findings in Spirituality & Heath

Harold G. Koenig, MD

Departments of Medicine and Psychiatry

Duke University Medical Center

GRECC VA Medical Center



  • What is health?
  • What is spirituality?
  • What is religion?
  • Research on religion and mental health
  • Effects of psychological stress on the body
  • Research on religion and physical health
  • Applications to clinical practice

What is health?

  • Physical health and vigor
  • Psychological health and well-being
  • Social health
  • Community health and thriving

What is Spirituality?

  • That which places a priority on seeking a connection with the Sacred, the transcendent, ultimate truth/reality, God
  • Personal, individualistic; has many different meanings (from devout religious commitment…to…a nebulous kind of philosophy focused on doing whatever feels good)
  • Ideal term for use clinically, since inclusive and vague; important “beginning place” for dialogue
  • Impossible to define and quantify as a distinct construct for research, apart from religion or positive psychology
  • The popular use of the word ‘spirituality’ today has become heavily linked to humanism and positive psychology that often exclude religion and the Sacred


“The very idea and language of ‘spirituality,’ originally grounded in the self-disciplining faith practices of religious believers, including ascetics and monks, then becomes detached from its moorings in historical religious traditions and is redefined in terms of subjective self-fulfillment.”

  • C. Smith and M.L. Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, p.175

Part of a presentation given by Rachel Dew, M.D., Duke post-doc fellow


What is Religion?

  • A system of beliefs and practices of those within a community, with rituals designed to acknowledge, worship, communicate with, and come closer to the Sacred, Divine or ultimate Truth or Reality (i.e., God)
  • Usually has a set of scriptures or teachings that describe the meaning and purpose of the world, the individual’s place in it, the responsibilities of individuals to one another, and the life after death
  • Usually has a moral code of conduct that is agreed upon by members of the community, who attempted to adhere to that code
  • Religion is a unique construct or domain – separate from positive psychology and distinct from secular humanism – that can be measured, quantified, and examined in relationship to health outcomes

Sigmund Freud

Future of an Illusion, 1927

“Religion would thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity... If this view is right, it is to be supposed that a turning-away from religion is bound to occur with the fatal inevitability of a process of growth…If, on the one hand, religion brings with it obsessional restrictions, exactly as an individual obsessional neurosis does, on the other hand it comprises a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality, such as we find in an isolated form nowhere else but amentia, in a state of blissful hallucinatory confusion…”


Sigmund Freud

Civilization and Its Discontents

“The whole thing is so patently infantile, so incongruous with reality, that to one whose attitude to humanity is friendly it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life.”

Part of a presentation given by Rachel Dew, M.D., Duke post-doc fellow


Religion and Coping with Illness

  • Many persons turn to religion for comfort when sick
  • Religion is used to cope with problems common among those with medical illness:
  • - uncertainty
  • - fear
  • - pain and disability
  • - loss of control
  • - discouragement and loss of hope

Does Religion Make a Difference?

  • Well-being
  • Depression
  • Suicide
  • Anxiety
  • Substance abuse

Religion and Mental Health Research Summary

  • Purpose and meaning in life (15/16)
  • Well-being, hope, and optimism (91/114)
  • Social support (19/20)
  • Marital satisfaction and stability (35/38)
  • Depression and its recovery (60/93)
  • Suicide (57/68)
  • Anxiety and fear (35/69)
  • Substance abuse (98/120)
  • Delinquency (28/36)
  • Summary: 478/724 quantitative studies
  • (based on studies prior to 2001)
  • Handbook of Religion and Health (Oxford University Press, 2001)

Attention Received Over the Years

Religion, Spirituality and Health

  • Growing interest – entire or partial journal issues on topic
  • (J Personality, J Family Psychotherapy, American Behavioral Scientist, Public Policy and Aging
  • Report, Psychiatric Annals, American J of Psychotherapy [partial], Psycho-Oncology,
  • International Review of Psychiatry, Death Studies, Twin Studies, J of Managerial Psychology,
  • J of Adult Development, J of Family Psychology, Advanced Development, Counseling & Values,
  • J of Marital & Family Therapy, J of Individual Psychology, American Psychologist,
  • Mind/Body Medicine, Journal of Social Issues, J of Health Psychology, Health Education &
  • Behavior, J Contemporary Criminal Justice, Journal of Family Practice, Southern Med J )
  • Growing amount of research and academic articles on topic
  • PsycInfo 2001-2005 = 5187 articles (2757 spirituality, 3170 religion) [11198 psychotherapy] 46%
  • PsycInfo 1996-2000 = 3512 articles (1711 spirituality, 2204 religion) [10438 psychotherapy] 34%
  • PsycInfo 1991-1995 = 2236 articles ( 807 spirituality, 1564 religion) [9284 psychotherapy] 24%
  • PsycInfo 1981-1985 = 936 articles ( 71 spirituality, 880 religion) [5233 psychotherapy] 18%
  • PsycInfo 1971-1975 = 776 articles ( 9 spirituality, 770 religion) [3197 psychotherapy] 24%

Effects of Negative Emotions on Health

  • Rosenkranz et al. Proc Nat Acad Sci 2003; 100(19):11148-11152
  • [experimental evidence that negative affect influences immune function]
  •   Kiecolt-Glaser et al. Proc Nat Acad Sci 2003; 100(15): 9090-9095
  • [stress of caregiving affects IL-6 levels for as long as 2-3 yrs after death of patient]
  •   Blumenthal et al. Lancet 2003; 362:604-609
  • [817 undergoing CABG followed-up up for 12 years; controlling # grafts, diabetes,
  • smoking, LVEF, previous MI, depressed pts had double the mortality]
  • Brown KW et al. Psychosomatic Medicine 2003; 65:636–643
  • [depressive symptoms predicted cancer survival over 10 years]
  • Epel et al. Proc Nat Acad Sci 2004; 101 :17312-17315
  • [psychological stress associated with shorter telomere length, a determinant of cell
  • senescence/ longevity; women with highest stress level experienced telomere
  • shortening suggesting they were aging at least 10 yrs faster than low stress women]


Lutgendorf SK, et al. Religious participation, interleukin-6, and mortality in older adults. Health Psychology2004; 23(5):465-475

Prospective study examines relationship between religious attendance, IL-6 levels, and mortality rates in a community-based sample of 557 older adults. Attending religious services more than once weekly was a significant predictor of lower subsequent 12-year mortality and elevated IL-6 levels (> 3.19 pg/mL), with a mortality ratio of.32 (95% CI = 0.15,0.72; p <.01) and an odds ratio for elevated IL-6 of.34 (95% CI = 0.16, 0.73, p <.01), compared with never attending religious services. Structural equation modeling indicated religious attendance was significantly related to lower mortality rates and IL-6 levels, and IL-6 levels mediated the prospective relationship between religious attendance and mortality. Results were independent of covariates including age, sex, health behaviors, chronic illness, social support, and depression.


Predicting Cancer Mortality

Mortality data from Alameda County, California, 1974-1987

3 Lifestyle practices: smoking; exercise; 7-8 hours of sleep

n=2290 all white All Attend Attend Church

WeeklyWeekly+3 Practices

SMR for all

cancer mortality 89 52 13

SMR = Standardized Mortality Ratio (compared to 100 in US population)

Enstrom (1989). Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 81:1807-1814.


Religion and Physical Health Research Summary

  • Better immune/endocrine function (5 of 5)
  • Lower mortality from cancer (5 of 7)
  • Lower blood pressure (14 of 23)
  • Less heart disease (7 of 11)
  • Less stroke (1 of 1)
  • Lower cholesterol (3 of 3)
  • Less cigarette smoking (23 of 25)
  • More likely to exercise (3 of 5)
  • Lower mortality (11 of 14) (1995-2000)
  • Clergy mortality (12 of 13)
  • (summary of research in year 2000 or before)
  • Many new studies since 2000

Handbook of Religion and Health (Oxford University Press, 2001)


New Research

  • Religious behaviors associated with slower progression of Alzheimer’s dis.
  • Kaufman et al. American Academic of Neurology, Miami, April 13, 2005
  • Religious attendance and cognitive functioning among older Mexican Americans.
  • Hill TD et al. Journal of Gerontology2006; 61(1):P3-9
  • Fewer surgical complications following cardiac surgery
  • Contrada et al. Health Psychology 2004;23:227-38
  • Greater longevity if live in a religiously affiliated neighborhood
  • Jaffe et al. Annals of Epidemiology 2005;15(10):804-810
  • Religious attendance associated with >90% reduction in meningococcal disease in teenagers, equal to or greater than meningococcal vaccination
  • Tully et al. British Medical Journal 2006; 332(7539):445-450
  • Church-based giving support related to lower mortality, not support received
  • Krause. Journal of Gerontology 61(3):S140-6, 2006

New Research (continued)

  • Higher church attendance predicts lower fear of falling in older Mexican-Americans
  • Reyes-Ortiz et al. Aging & Mental Health2006; 10:13-18
  • Religion and survival in a secular region. A twenty year follow-up of 734 Danish adults born in 1914.
  • la Cour P, et al. Social Science & Medicine 2006; 62: 157-164
  • Oncologist assisted spiritual intervention study (OASIS): Patient acceptability and initial evidence of effects.
  • Kristeller et al. Int’l J Psychiatry in Med 2005; 35:329-347

Many Theological Concerns About What These Research Results Mean

  • 1. Is science “validating” religion?
  • 2. If so, could it just as well disprove religion?
  • 3. Is there a risk here? (Harvard study)
  • 4. Is it appropriate to “use” religion to achieve better health?
  • 5. Are we caving into the demands of a therapeutic culture that
  • is seeking to eliminate all suffering?
  • 6. Is suffering always bad?

Many Health Care System Concerns

  • Resistance against integration remains strong among health professionals, especially physicians
  • Time and short-term costs involved; hospitals resistant
  • The majority of patients want health professionals to address spiritual issues, but a significant minority don’t
  • There are challenges to sensitively addressing spiritual needs in pluralistic health care setting

Reasons Why Health Professionals Should Address Spirituality

  • Many patients are religious and the majority would like it to be addressed in their health care
  • Religion/spirituality influences coping with illness
  • Religion likely affects health outcomes
  • JCAHO requires that a spiritual history be taken
  • Religion affects medical decisions, disease detection
  • Religion influences health care in the community

Recommendations for Patient Care

  • Take a spiritual history -- talk with pts about these issues
  • Respect, value, support beliefs and practices of thepatient
  • Identify the spiritual needs of the patient
  • Ensure that someone meets those spiritual needs (pastoral care)
  • Establish working partnerships with the faith community
  • Pray with patients?

From: Spirituality in Patient Care (Templeton Foundation Press, 2002)


Taking a Spiritual History

  • Introduction is necessary (why asking these questions)
  • Do religious/spiritual beliefs provide comfort or cause stress?
  • How might beliefs influence medical decisions?
  • Are there beliefs that might interfere/conflict with medical care?
  • Member of a religious/spiritual community & is it supportive?
  • Any other spiritual needs that someone should address?
  • JAMA 288 (4): 487- 493 (July 24, 2002)

What Health Professionals Should Not Do

  • Prescribe religion to non-religious patients
  • Force a spiritual history if patient not religious
  • Coerce patients in any way to believe or practice
  • Pray with a patient before taking an in-depth spiritual hx
  • Spiritually counsel patients (always refer to trained spiritual caregivers)
  • Any activity that is not patient-centered
  • Argue with patients over religious matters
  • (even when it conflicts with medical care/treatment)


  • 1. Differences between “religion” and “spirituality” are important;
  • minimal requirements to call something “spiritual” also import
  • 2. Research shows that religious involvement in general is related
  • to better mental health, better social health, and better physical
  • health, although no research has tried to distinguish ‘healthy’ vs. ‘unhealthy’ religion
  • 3. Learning about (via spiritual history), supporting a patient’s
  • own religious beliefs, praying with patients (if requested), and
  • referral to pastoral care experts is appropriate for health
  • professionals
  • 4. But there are boundaries on what health professionals can do,
  • and there is some danger in non-theologically trained health addressing spiritual issues

Further Resources

  • Spirituality in Patient Care (Templeton Press, 2002)
  • Handbook of Religion and Health (Oxford University Press, 2001)
  • Healing Power of Faith (Simon & Schuster, 2001)
  • Faith and Mental Health: Religious Resources for Healing (Templeton Press, 2005)
  • The Link Between Religion & Health: Psychoneuroimmunology & the Faith Factor (Oxford University Press, 2002)
  • Handbook of Religion and Mental Health (Academic Press, 1998)
  • In the Wake of Disaster: Religious Responses to Terrorism and Catastrophe (Templeton Press, 2006)
  • Faith in the Future: Religion, Aging & Healthcare in 21st Century (Templeton Press, 2004)
  • The Healing Connection (Templeton Press, 2004)
  • Kindness and Joy (Templeton Press, Fall-Winter 2006)
  • Duke website:

Summer Research Workshop

July and August 2007

Durham, North Carolina

5-day intensive workshops focus on what we know about the relationship between religion and health, applications, how to conduct research and develop an academic career in this area. Leading religion-health researchers at Duke and UNC will give presentations:

-Previous research on religion, spirituality and health

-Strengths and weaknesses of previous research

-Applying findings to clinical practice

-Theological considerations and concerns

-Highest priority studies for future research

-Strengths and weaknesses of religion/spirituality measures

-Designing different types of research projects

-Carrying out and managing a research project

-Writing a grant to NIH or private foundations

-Where to obtain funding for research in this area

-Writing a research paper for publication; getting it published

-Presenting research to professional and public audiences; working with the media

If interested, contact Harold G. Koenig: